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Building a new consciousness in the built environment

10 Jul 2023 10 min read

Nooshin Akrami writes about how construction must upskill to meet our planet’s urgent sustainability needs.

Image of cranes and construction work at sunset
Recent research suggests that current climate policies will leave more than a fifth of humanity exposed to dangerously hot temperatures by 2100. What can be done in the built environment sector?

We are ever more conscious of the problem of ‘human induced’ climate change as its impact on day-to-day life and business activity becomes increasingly tangible. Environmental issues are multifaceted and climate change is one of the most urgent we need to address, all while keeping an eye on the bigger picture of our ‘planetary boundaries’ and our cumulative and consequential impacts elsewhere in that chart.

The UK government has set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Net zero is defined as a collective balancing act of removing human induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the earth’s atmosphere at the same rate that it is produced at any time. The construction industry is a key player in achieving this target and must adopt sustainable practices to reduce its carbon footprint.

According to the UK Green Building Council, the built environment is responsible for around 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions (UK Green Building Council, 2022). The UK Green Building Council also highlights the need for the construction industry to adopt more sustainable practices to reduce its environmental impact. In the UK, the construction industry is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 10% of total emissions. Construction is one of the most resource-intensive industries, responsible for generating significant quantities of waste and pollution, which have negative impacts on the environment and public health.

The other key issue relating to the built environment is the industry’s significant impact on the loss of biodiversity, not only through land use for buildings and infrastructure, but also though the extraction of resources used in creating the building materials, some of which (such as steel, concrete and glass) are produced through highly carbon-intensive processes.

Photo of a city skyline with a green park in the forefront of the image

The construction industry in the UK is facing a pressing challenge that cannot be ignored any longer. To meet this challenge, the industry must upskill its current and future workforce and build capacity in environmental sustainability to cover technical and broader issues that either conveniently or obliviously have been overlooked for decades.

While higher and further education on sustainable practices within the built environment may have covered some elements of adaptation to climate change and the reduction of embodied carbon, there is an urgent need for deeper understanding of the industry’s impact. The questions of how and what we build, the environmental problems associated with building materials and land use, as well as the impact of construction on the loss of biodiversity, all require close consideration. More broadly, the impact the construction industry could have on both socio-economic and socio-political matters nationally and globally should be a key aspect of teaching.

Blurred image of the backs of a group of people listening to a talk by two people standing up

To upskill its workforce with required knowledge and skills, the construction industry can adopt a varied approach involving education, training, certifications and accreditation. Education, as the foundation of upskilling, requires industry engagement. One potential route is for professional bodies to consider environmental sustainability as the core element of their disciplines, with an overarching presence or as a ‘golden thread’ throughout the course of a qualification. Although efforts have been made in this line by some key industry institutions, the level of engagement required to meet the challenge we face is yet to be achieved.

For the existing workforce, a combination of training and education can be considered at various levels. Industry leaders may need upskilling in leading and managing environmental sustainability, while different forms of training and certification in building design, specification and construction process can support further engagement with sustainability matters across all roles. Both technical and moral capacity is required within the current workforce for thinking and acting consciously to change the unsustainable path we are on. Time is of the essence and the need for action is urgent; the key word in achieving these goals is collaboration amongst industry actors, educational institutions, and professional bodies.

A fundamental objective of upskilling must be to develop a ‘shared reality’. What do climate catastrophe, tipping point, as well as climate stability and sustainability mean to humanity? Acting in isolation may only result in a false sense of security, associated with thinking ‘we have done or are doing our bit.’

Cleaning our patch and keeping our patch clean without contemplating where else is implicated in the process will never solve the problem that humanity is facing collectively right now. Even more complex is our way of approaching the problem, which is almost exclusively human centred, even when we think about the loss of biodiversity. The construction industry needs to upskill, but equally and more urgently needs up-to-date knowledge within its leadership, building a new consciousness to inform stronger decision-making for a sustainable future.

This is a guest blog written by Nooshin Akrami, IEMA Accredited Trainer, for the Green Careers Hub.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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IEMA is the membership body for environment and sustainability professionals